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Breast Cancer Early Detection and Prevention

If there was a chance you could get breast cancer, would you remove one or both of your breasts to prevent getting the disease? More women are choosing to have preventive mastectomies, but doctors say they aren't for everyone. Preventive mastectomies, also called "prophylactic mastectomies," are only for women at a moderate- or high-risk of getting breast cancer. That means, if you had breast cancer, have a close family member (mother, sister, daughter) who had it or have the breast cancer causing gene, your doctor may offer this surgery as a choice.

But experts agree there is no way to prevent breast cancer. Even these preventive mastectomies aren't 100% certain to keep you cancer-free.

Finding out early and getting care are the best ways to lower the number of deaths caused by this disease. Here are the main types of exams and tests used to find breast cancer.

  1. Self-Exam: Check yourself once a month to know how your breasts look and feel so that you can tell your doctor if there are any changes. If you are still having periods, the exam may be easier right after your period. Be safe and check with your doctor if you find:
    • A lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast
    • Swelling, redness or darkening of the breast
    • Skin pain or dimpling
    • Nipple pain or the nipple turning inward
    • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple or skin
    • Discharge from the nipple (except when breast feeding)

  2. Clinical breast exam (CBE): This is done as part of your yearly check-up. Your doctor will look at your breasts for shape or size changes and feel for lumps. A CBE should be done at least every three years for women 20 to 40 years old. After 40, women should have a CBE every year.

  3. Mammogram: A mammogram is an X-ray that takes a picture of the inside of the breast. This test may show signs of breast cancer before it can be felt in a self-exam or CBE. It can also show whether something found during an exam is likely to be cancer or not. In general, women over 40 should get this test every other year, though some doctors may order one every year. Your doctor will help you to determine the best screening plan for you.

If something not normal shows up in a clinical breast exam or mammogram, your doctor might do more tests.

Sources: National Cancer Institute , American Cancer Society

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